Book review: Sizing up the impact of neoliberal reforms

Makerere University Vice Chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe displays a copy of the book "The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation" during its launch in Kampala on April 15, 2019. PHOTO/FILE/HANDOUT

What you need to know:

  • Title: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation
  • Author: Jörg Wiegratz, Giuliano Martiniello, and Elisa Greco 

For more than 30 years, Uganda has taken the path of neoliberalism as her national policy. President Museveni, once a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist-Leninist, made a 180-degree turn and became the high priest of these ideas under the auspices of the western world chaperoned by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB).

The country’s tertiary education best captures the change. Once a preserve of the government, with Makerere University the sole university in the country, the sector now has close to fifty universities across the country, most of them privately owned and run. The financial sector has also been so liberalised that most important financial institutions in the country are privately owned.

From the start, the promise was that neoliberalisation–the markets taking charge with minimal government interventions–would lead to progress for all. For a nation then reeling from the devastating effects of brutal dictatorship and prolonged wars, the promise was received with enthusiasm and little scientism.

Nearly three decades later, many dissenting voices have since come up. In a scathing criticism of neoliberalism in the financial sector, former Finance minister Dr Ezra Suruma warned that “Ugandans will remain poor until they own their bank.”  

There is a paucity of literature discussing the outcome of the country’s neoliberal transformation. It is this void that The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation seeks to fill. The book’s body of work–in great detail–explores the impact of the neoliberal transformation on ordinary Ugandans.

The different papers in the book explore a wide range of areas and assesses how neoliberalisation has fared in them. These topics range from education to the health, to the financial sector, to the decentralisation to access and usage of land, and practice of culture. With 22 contributors from Uganda, the region, and globe–mostly academics–the book is exhaustive on most of the sectors looked at.

Divided into four parts and a proffering 19 papers, the first part entitled The State, Donors and Development Aid investigates the powerful hands behind Uganda’s path to neoliberalisation, their strong interest in Uganda. As the readers will quickly notice, Uganda turned into a poster child for neoliberalisation. Strong connections between Kampala and the Brenton woods institutions saw the two sides work hard to see their experiment succeed.

The second part—Economic Restructuring and Social Services—assesses Uganda’s neoliberalism journey insofar as it placed financial, educational, and health services majorly in private hands. Despite the claims of progress, this section of the book shows that a small economy of Uganda’s size with most people engaged in peasant agriculture was never ready for the grand kind of reforms ushered by the Structural Adjustment Programmes.

The third part—Extractivism and Enclosures—assesses the outcome of neoliberalisation on nature by looking at forestry, carbon emission, oil development, water as a natural resource, and land reform. The section reveals that forests, land, and all natural resources have been affected by the characteristic accumulation of wealth that is the drive behind capitalism. In the end, the results are land conflicts, high levels of deforestation, and land poverty.

Part four, simply entitled Race, Culture and Commoditisation, looks at the central place and role of Uganda’s Asian and South Asian community in the country’s neoliberalism. Also examined in this section is the impact of neoliberalism on the youth and their place in Uganda today, and the role of Uganda’s Pentecostal-Charismatic church in forging a new moral order – a sort of bastion of neoliberalism.

Ultimately, the book shows that a lot of the promises of neoliberal reforms have not come to fruition.